We are accustomed to the idea that the pursuit of happiness is our natural right. The phrase, “whatever makes you happy,” is thrown around without any deeper consideration of what happiness really is or should be. In other words, our practical understanding and use of the term has been reduced to what is easy, convenient, and often a life of least resistance.

I am not aware of any literature that makes a compelling argument in support of the easy, or relatively convenient, life as the path to happiness. In fact, most research shows the opposite. Studies highlight the importance of challenge, problem-solving, hardships, and even crises as galvanizing experiences in life that produce gratitude, resilience, humility, and hope.

In the Academy Award-winning film, Life is Beautiful, we see a father taking his young son through some of the darkest moments of the Holocaust. He tells him that their time in a concentration camp is merely a game, and if he follows the rules, he could win the prize of riding on a real tank.

One of the most central spiritual foods to life is hope. In an age where we no longer worry about food, clothing, or shelter, we forget that the many comforts and conveniences do not replace the need for hope. We are dancing on the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and don’t know where to go next. What is left when all the historic temporal human needs for survival, entertainment, and adventure have been mostly solved?

Most of these things are necessary distractions. They keep us preoccupied but they do not fulfill one’s life. Hope is like food for the soul. A wrongfully imprisoned convict with a life sentence (think Shawshank Redemption) can have more hope than a billionaire with multiple homes and jets. It does not come with accomplishments or things but rather through a friend, a father, a mother, a child, or a mentor who believes in me. It is a light, a fire, but also a flower and fragile.

Hope is not something they give us with our college diploma or when graduating boot camp. It is something we pursue and acquire through beliefs, relationships, religion and sacred traditions, and by regularly asking ourselves the question, “do I want to be happy or hopeful today?”

 

—LCDR Mark J. Won, MF Chaplain